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      MaNdOs PoSt I have even less truck with Political YouTube than ordinary TV.  But it has come to my attention that there is someone named “Joe Rogan” who has achieved a certain level of fame and popularity by doing independent online interviews of politicians, so much so that Democratic primary candidates feel the need to […]
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Barack Obama; Martin Luther King, Jr.; and the rest of us

[A slightly different version of this post appears at Heidi Li’s Potpourri.]

I was asked today if I did not think I should be happy about President-elect Obama’s election because he will be our first black president. My questioner was somebody who clearly is happy about President-elect Obama’s presidency for precisely this reason. According to him Martin Luther King, Jr. would be similarly pleased. Furthermore, according to my questioner, it is insulting to Dr. King’s memory that I regard Dr. King as a teacher in my own quest to resist peer pressure, mobocracy, and authoritarianism in my own small, nascent efforts to seriously fight for the full civic and social standing of women in America and elsewhere.

In my conversation, I explained that I am extremely happy for those people of color, particularly black Americans, who feel more fully validated as Americans by living in a country led by a black person. (This post – just like the conversation – does not present an occasion to debate who counts as black or a person of color; such distinctions were out of order in the conversation.  They would have been insulting to my questioner, who is black and would rightly point out that in most of this country most people have no problem saying who counts as such, despite the complex ways that individuals come to be seen as black or brown or white or whatever. I mean that: please do not use this post as an occasion to debate what it means to be black.) I then explained that beyond this very great happiness, the color of Mr. Obama’s skin has nothing to do with whether the prospect of his presidency pleases me or dismays me.  That was all that time permitted in this brief interlude of discussion during the day. But I have thought further on the matter.

With regard to Martin Luther King, Jr. I would not presume to surmise how he would have reacted to Mr. Obama. Dr. King was sometimes critical of other black leaders and nothing in his writings suggests that all black people are superior to all white people. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of a type of equality, a society in which the color of one’s skin was neither cause for shame or pride and where people, including his own children, were judged by the content of their character. As Dr. King so famously noted this dream is an American dream, not a black dream or a white dream.

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

To the extent that  Barack Obama’s election represents the realization of  Dr. King’s dream, his election is an awesome, mighty event.

Yet Dr. King was, as we all are, a person of his time. So in this speech, given in 1963, he does not single out women as  group separate from men who need to be included in the new age of equality that he envisioned. He refers over and over to men, not to people, but that again was the language of his time. Confusing language, but the language of the time. King knew of hatred between black men and white men, between Jews and Gentiles, and between Protestants and Catholics, knew all too well how this hatred was so often used to justify inegalitarian treatment by one group toward the other. King rejected the hatred that drove such inegalitarianism.

I share with King a delight in the idea of a day when people will be judged by the content of their characters. I dream of a day that may come as more people come to realize that nobody yet has championed the cause of full civic and social standing for women in the face of hatred against them,  a day when people are judged by the content of the their character rather than the kind of genitalia they possess.

In 2008, I saw a man stand idly by en route to his winning the White House while his supporters called women who ran against him or on a ticket against him, “ho” and “c*nt”. He stood idly by while members of the press intimated that the adult daughter of one his opponents was prostituting herself by campaigning for her mother. That he stood by so idly had nothing to with the color of his skin. Plenty of white men in positions of political power or prestige also stood idly by while this went on. Some women of all colors stood idly by as well.

I have gone on to see the man who won the White House include in his inauguration another man, one who preaches hatred of gay people, the doctrine of wifely submission, and the comparison of the exercise of a woman’s Constitutional right to an abortion to an act of Nazism. I have seen him refuse to disassociate himself from a speechwriter who, however stupidly, evidently had a great time pretending to cop a feel of the future Secretary of State – something he would not have done, I suspect, were she a man whose cardboard cutout just happened to be at the party he was attending.  Both the preacher and the speechwriter are men, white men, so skin color does not come into the hatred  and disrespect of women indicated by either man’s words or gestures.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was, as we all are, a person of his time. So I do not presume to know what he would make of a man who stood idly by while women who ran against him or his ticket were exposed to hate speech; or what he would make of the inclusion of a woman-bashing preacher in a Presidential inauguration; or the retention of a sophomorically sexist speechwriter on a President’s staff. But I find nothing in King’s life or writing that suggests I as a woman am in any way disrespecting him when I take him as a model of a person who staunchly refused to accept arbitrary inegalitarianism and saw it as an obstacle to liberty, particularly liberty as understood in the American tradition.  So far, I have not seen from Barack Obama a commitment to the elimination of the arbitrary inegalitarianism in the way men and women, boys and girls, are treated in America or indeed the world today. Unlike Martin Luther King, Jr. Barack Obama has not made the cornerstone of his life or his political career the elimination of arbitrary inegalitarianism of the sort that makes the legitimate pursuit of liberty impossible. So Barack Obama does not provide me with a model for how to fight the fights I think need fighting: the overcoming of hatred of women, the effort to have people see women as people deserving of their full and rightful place in American society and around the world.

Martin Luther King, Jr. does.

It is hard for an empty suit to take a stand – or perhaps even to understand what it means to take a stand

[Cross-posted from Heidi Li’s Potpourri]

Richard Cohen’s sister is canceling her inauguration party because of President-elect Obama’s choice of Rick Warren to bless Mr. Obama’s taking the office of the Presidency of the United State. According to her brother’s column in the Washington Post, what made her do this is the way in which Mr. Obama’s choice to pick this pastor for this occasion serves as a special sort of condoning of Mr. Warren’s views about gays and lesbians. I agree with Richard Cohen, and apparently his sister, that these views should be regarded as totally unacceptable by anybody who has any sense of the importance of civil rights and indeed of human rights. I also agree with Richard Cohen’s view that as a somebody running for the office of President and who was at the time a U.S. Senator, Mr. Obama had a particular responsibility for denouncing his then-pastor’s church, Trinity United Church of Christ, for giving the anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan a special award during the primary season. I find it troubling that neither Mr. Cohen nor apparently his sister have not been, as far as I can tell, overly concerned by President-Elect Obama’s equally eloquent silence and inaction regarding the sexism and misogyny directed at Senator Clinton and her supporters, particularly the sophomoric expression of these attitudes by Jon Favreau, the man writing President-elect Obama’s inaugural address. (I shudder to think what the reaction of the Cohen family would have been if Favreau had been found on YouTube horsing around calling somebody a “homo” – maybe then Richard Cohen’s sister would join us in our demand that the President-Elect fire this sophomoric bigot as his chief speech-writer. Whether a bigot is slick (Warren) or juvenile (Favreau), he is still a bigot.)

It is tempting to forget in this sort of dynamic who the real problem is. As is clear from what I have written so far, I wish Richard Cohen and his sister would be, respectively, writing about and canceling inauguration parties as much over Mr. Obama’s inaction in the face of sexism and misogyny as they are in the face of anti-Semitism and gay-bashing. And yes, I wish that Richard Cohen’s sister had paid attention to and given greater weight to the fact that she had the option to work to elect somebody who, both as a Senator and as a Presidential candidate, repeatedly marched in Pride parades and met with editors of gay newspapers across the country rather than working for somebody who would not even have his photograph taken with Gavin Newsome.

But I am not falling into the trap that lies that way. Just because people got it wrong before does not mean they cannot help matters now. People can learn. So despite the bit of complaining above, I am not going to point a finger at Richard Cohen’s sister (or, for that matter, at Katha Pollitt for decrying the misogyny involved in the Warren choice when Pollitt, like Richard Cohen’s sister, opted to support Mr. Obama for the presidency when it was already obvious that he was complacent, to say the least, about sexism and misogyny). I am just pleased that they are starting to pay attention now and apparently coming to understand better who they voted for. To quote Richard Cohen: “The real problem has nothing to do with ministers and everything to do with Obama’s inability or unwillingness to be a moral leader. Sooner or later, he just might have to stand for something.”

Aye, there’s the rub. During the primary season and the general election a friend of mine who spent some considerable amount of time listening to me lament the Democratic Party’s poor judgment in making then-Senator Obama their poster-child, kept saying to me that the real problem with Mr. Obama is that he is an “empty suit”.

That term seemed to me too tepid back then. But I have come to see it as the essential problem behind the problem of Mr. Obama’s inability or unwillingness to be a moral leader, and possibly any kind of leader. To be a moral leader, to stand for something means that you have to fill out your suit, your office, your position. To be an “empty suit” is to be a person who cannot draw a line in the sand, precisely because you do not have an arm and hand within that suit to use to reach out and draw that line. To be an “empty suit” is to be devoid of the weightiness that real leadership requires, including the gravitas to admit to a mistake and change one’s position (drop the bigoted minister and lose the bigoted speechwriter; say you have been wrong to dig in your heels rather than listen to the concerns of so many of the people who worked so hard to elect you). To be an “empty suit” is to be a moral vacuum.

I refused to vote for John McCain for a number of reasons but among them was the fact that while I knew he had the capacity for moral leadership, I did not care for the directions toward which his moral commitments would lead my country. I refused to vote for Barack Obama because I knew he came up empty on the capacity for moral leadership.

In some ways, moral emptiness, especially in a President, is worse than moral wrong-headedness. The morally wrong-headed leader takes a stand, e.g. George W. Bush’s legitimization of torture, and one can rally people against the stand she or he takes. The morally empty leader takes no stand. Under these circumstances, her or his silences often allow people to forget that the blank that exists in lieu of a leader is the appropriate target of criticism. After all, it seems easier to go after people who actually do take stands (Rick Warren, for example) rather than the person who silently enables wrong-headed person to gain in stature. But this is sleight of hand. The real problem is the enabler, the person who allows the sophomoric sexist to put words in his mouth, the person who lets bigoted clerics and their churches affiliate with him.

So, to Richard Cohen’s sister and to Katha Pollitt, I say welcome to my party – the one that got lost in 2008, the one that expected moral leadership of a certain kind from a Democratic president. Now that you are here, I hope you can help me figure out what we are going to do with the empty suit about to occupy the Oval Office. If that empty suit thinks he can pick up sufficient evangelical money and votes in 2012, he is not going to listen to bloggers and op-ed columnists whose votes and followers he thinks he can replace with the support of the evangelicals, regardless of the detestable content of many of their views and some of their conduct. Personally, I do not think we can give the empty suit the backbone necessary to resist the lure of that support. If we cannot give this empty suit some backbone, we need, as I have written before, to start figuring out how we can have a better candidate on offer in 2012. So to the people who are canceling their celebrations, may I suggest that they use the time and effort saved to start solving that problem. We need to coalesce now around somebody who can fight for a nomination by a major Party – probably the the Party formerly recognizable as the Democratic one – who is what Obama’s supporters hoped he would be and what I fear he is not.